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Social epidemics and "The Tipping Point"

Malcolm Gladwell's book "The Tipping Point," 2002, reminds me of some of the ideas from the complexity class I took recently. Societies behave like other complex systems. Little changes in social systems can have large effects.
Social change can happen quickly. The system suddenly snaps to a different stable state. The speed of change is counter-intuitive: we expect social change to be slow and steady, but it actually often proceeds in sudden jumps. The dissolution of the Soviet Union would be an example.

Gladwell calls a sudden social change the "tipping point," a term he borrowed from epidemiology. It's the point at which an epidemic takes off, moves from an arithmetical progression to a geometrical one, because the number of carriers has reached critical mass. The graph line suddenly shoots upward. Only Gladwell is writing about social epidemics. Ideas, he says, are contagious.

Main principles:

1. "The Law of the Few" - A few people do most of the idea spreading, because they are much better at it than others. These are the people you want to recruit to spread your message. The 80/20 principle says that 20 percent of the people cause 80 percent of the effects. But with epidemics it's even more extreme - fewer carriers. "Social epidemics... are driven by... a handful of exceptional people... . It's things like how sociable they are, or how energetic or knowledgeable or influential among their peers." (Also see the novel Bellwether by Connie Willis.)
"Mavens" are curious and detail-oriented, to the point, compared to the rest of us, of obsession. They love to gather and pass on information. Lots of them on the Internet.
"Connecters" link us to other people.
"Salesmen" are the persuaders.

2. The "Stickiness Factor" - A message has to be memorable, contagious, move us to action. "There are relatively simple changes in the presentation and structuring of information that can make a big difference in how much of an impact it makes."

3. The "Power of Context" - "Epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur." Small changes in context can cause large changes in behavior, so we should focus on little things in the community, like graffiti, that we can easily change.
Gladwell writes that the way we "function and communicate and process information is messy and opaque... . Social change is so volatile and so often inexplicable, because it is the nature of all of us to be volatile and inexplicable." So you have to test to see if your attempt to start a social epidemic is working, measure results.

Timing is important: "Tipping Points are moments of great sensitivity. Changes made right at the Tipping Point can have enormous consequences."

The American left has often been accused of "preaching to the choir," but maybe that makes sense if the "choir" is made up of active transmitters and not just passive receivers, like most Americans.

Where do you find these people? I would look for people who are already activists, reporters, teachers, ministers, politicians, etc. Tell them you don't expect them to join your group or spend a lot of time on it, just pass the message on when they can. Give them simple materials they can use, a stack of brochures with website address. Speakers they can invite to meetings or neighborhood coffees. The message should include some simple, easy action people can take - go to the website and use a form to send a message to a politician. Build up an email list, and use it sparingly.

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old news my friend 03.Jul.2005 09:35


It's funny how the idea's of Marxism, so far removed from mainstream society for so long, reappear in different way's. For example, Marx and Engels explained this 'tipping point' idea about a 150 years ago, and much better was it described too. The idea of change within complex systems was the study of much of Marx's life; In his Capital, Marx dissects the many details of Capitalism and comes to a brilliant understanding of the system; For Marx, the 'tipping point' in Capitalism is revolution. The philosphy to study such events was discovered by Hegel, called dialectics, who Marx studied and improved upon.
The 'tipping point' can be observed throughout all of nature, simple examples involve the heating of water; the water becomes hotter and hotter, till there is a revolution of form (tipping point), and the water begins to boil. In human evolution, the change from one specie to another is called 'puntuated equilibruim', or 'the tipping point'. For more on this subject read, Reason in Revolt- Alan Woods. OR The Dialects of Nature and/or Anti-Duhring by Fredrick Engels.

Rosa 03.Jul.2005 13:46

George Bender

I'm afraid that Marxism, at least in the U.S., has not been "sticky" enough to catch on. Most people see it, if they see it at all, as some kind of alien philosophy from Europe. I think there are other ways of expressing the need for economic justice that might catch on. It probably depends on how bad things get economically in this country. If the economy crashes that might be a teachable moment, if we could find a teachable message.

I am not a Marxist. I would go for something more like what Nader is promoting, a well-regulated mixed capitalist/socialist economy, with some kind of guarranteed minimum income for everyone, plus universal health care. No more aggressive wars.

I don't see Gladwell's ideas as "old news." He is writing about rational ways of starting idea epidemics. Techniques. This is independent of any particular message. I would like to see the American left look at the task of spreading ideas this way, instead of always banging our heads against brick walls. However, in the present defeatist atmosphere it seems impossible to get the left to either think or move. Everyone is saying "No, I won't, and you can't make me."

Bender 04.Jul.2005 11:33


If you were to read some real socialist literature, you would soon realize why Naders proposal (the same as Adam Smith, hundreds of years ago) does not, and cannot work. Capitalism functions off profit and competition, giving back to society negates both of these. Capitalism and Socialism are in fact water and oil, existing together only in dreams.

Rosa 04.Jul.2005 15:20

George Bender

In the past socialists have contributed valuable ideas to American politics, such as Social Security, but now socialism seems to have hardened into a religion. Talking to Marxists is like talking to Jesus freaks: you've got the answer to everything and the answer is Marxism. It makes it impossible, as in the present exchange, to have an intelligent conversation about politics or social problems. You are simply impervious to ideas outside your theology. Doesn't it say something to you about your strategy that 99 percent of Americans are ignoring you?

bender 04.Jul.2005 23:08


Bender, what is your definition of socialism? here is mine: socialism = a classless society; not much more is needed. If your definition of socialism involves rich people owning companies, and poor people working for them (but with the cush benefit of social security), then there lies our difference.

Calling Marxism 'religion' or 'dogma' does not make it so, but simply highlights the closed state of your mind, for you have never made a serious investigation into the ideas you claim to refute. Give me instances where the ideas of Marx are incorrect, as I have given evidence to the failings of your thoughts.

The fact that most americans are not open to Marxist ideas proves nothing, except that they are taught by the media to reject certain ideas before they have a chance to seriously consider them, much like yourself.